We’re working towards community equity through personal wellness, meaningful work, and generating opportunities to build community wealth. Read Tony’s story of commitment and transformation through work.
Over the past 14 years, Tony Velez and his wife Dannielle have seen a lot from their home on N. 17th and North Avenue. It wasn’t always peachy on 17th street. The neighbors struggled with gang activity, gun-violence, fighting on the block, and abandoned properties. But one summer they saw something new that symbolized a rebirth of Tony’s childhood neighborhood, something that reaffirmed their commitment to stay put and raise their seven children in Lindsay Heights: a group of teenagers and elders in the neighborhood planting peach trees next to the restored Walnut Way house.
“The peach trees were planted without machinery, grassroots style, in a vacant lot on N. 17th street,” said Tony. Tony watched the peach trees grow over the years. They eventually started to produce fruit. He also noticed different activity happening in the neighborhood such as the new Ezekiel Gillespie Park on N. 14th and Wright St. that was being created by a partnership of Walnut Way’s Blue Skies Landscaping Project and Home/GrownMKE. Meanwhile, his kids were actively involved in children’s programming offered through Walnut Way (e.g. Growing Youth Leadership, 4-H Clubs, Art at the Heart). Tony, his wife, and eldest daughter would often help out as chaperones or demonstrate their cooking skills during youth nights at the center. There was a new buzz in the neighborhood, and not just from the honey bees that were pollinating the peach trees and making honey.
A blast from the past – Tony’s kids husk corn at Harvest Day.
FROM TEARING UP TO BUILDING UP
At the time, Tony was working as a landscaper and doing snow removal. The palpable sense of rebirth captured Tony’s attention and made him want to have an even bigger part in the neighborhood’s transformation. And so Tony applied for and received a job with Blue Skies Landscaping. As a skilled machinery operator and landscaper, he was quickly put to work on both large and small landscape projects and teaching machinery skills to other crew members. Tony also learned new skills in green infrastructure design and installation. He worked on a green roof in the Historic Wally Schmidt Tavern Building renovation and installed permeable pavement in the patio of The Tandem Restaurant. (The restaurant is located on the ground floor of the Wally Schmidt Tavern Building at 1850 W. Fond du Lac Ave.)
Tony’s position with Blue Skies Landscaping has solidified his commitment to Lindsay Heights. “As a young man, I used to tear up these streets,” recalls Tony. “But today I am building them up.” In the past several years, Tony and his family have seen many new developments sprinkle around Lindsay Heights, from Sunshine Park on the corner of 14th and North Ave. to the new America’s Black Holocaust Museum and The Griot Apartments on N. 4th and W. North Ave. Tony is proud of the projects and companies that are working with Walnut Way to transform the neighborhood, like CG Schmidt and Greenfire Development.
Tony is looking forward to Blue Skies expansion into larger green infrastructure projects that will further beautify and preserve the Lindsay Heights environment. “I’m really proud of the work Blue Skies does for Lindsay Heights and for our young people,” explains Tony. “Blue Skies promotes education, unity, brotherhood, a strong environment, and endless opportunity.”
WORK THAT EXTENDS OUTWARD
His work with Blue Skies has transformed his life in ways far beyond his immediate family: he and his wife – both of whom are known for their cooking skills – regularly prepare and share large meals with neighborhood kids. Tony is also very active in Walnut Way’s Men’s Wellness Network – both as a mentor and as an award-winning regular participant in the “Dad’s Who Cook” competitions. He took first place in 2016 for his stuffed peppers and 2nd place in 2017 for his baked ribs.
“I’m glad that I get to work in the neighborhood and that my kids get to grow up here and benefit from our tight community, just like I did when I was young,” says Tony.
Through programs like Blue Skies Landscaping, Walnut Way is giving residents like Tony the power to transform their neighborhood – as parents, mentors, and workers. You can help too. Please donate generously to support Walnut Way’s life-changing programs.